Surveillance, Secrecy, and the Spectator: ‘Astro Noise’ by Laura Poitras

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but what a year of theatre it has already been! In January, I spent three weeks in London. This was my first time to London, and I absolutely loved it. It was also the first time I had ever dedicated time to theater, because there’s always a show happening somewhere in London. The same goes for New York, which is where I am currently. I’m still processing everything I’ve seen, and everything I’m feeling. But first, I spent time writing a response to an exhibition for my Live Video Performance Art class in New York, which I would like to develop further here. Last week I paid by first ever visit to the Whitney Museum in NYC to see a video installation by Laura Poitras. Even though this post is related to an installation, I believe it incorporated theatrical elements to the point where it can be considered a theatre piece that used film and interactive media elements. So here goes:

I could write several pages on Laura Poitras’ recent exhibition titled Astro Noise at The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Primarily known for her work as a documentary filmmaker, Poitras’ work revolves around how geopolitical events touch people on a human scale. Astro Noise is a cleverly assembled immersive installation incorporating the use of videos – both shot and archival – and government documents and surveillance footage. My primary focus on this response will be to discuss how Poitras plays with the relationship between the spectator and the object of viewing, with specific reference to the first installation.

The first room sets the tone of scrutiny over the act of viewing. Titled “O’ Say Can You See,” there is a huge projection screen hanging in the middle of the room with clips of individuals of varying ages engaging in the act of viewing. The room sounds eerie, the clips are slowed down, and the only light emanates from the videos being played. The only information Poitras provides in the video, is a text that appears at the beginning or the end of all the clips, identifying the sound to be the United States National Anthem playing at the Yankee Stadium. The anthem however is distorted, barely comprehensible. The individuals in the clips can be said to be at a game in the stadium, yet they look up towards a corner of the screen. The sequence of clips are in fact of “people gazing at the unseen remains of the World Trade Center” following 9/11. Through the juxtaposition of the visuals and sound, Poitras creates a social commentary on how the act of viewing is a source of amusement that is passive. On the reverse side of the screen in contrast, plays low quality footage of Afghans being held captive by U.S. military. An audience views the footage by sitting directly in front of the screen, the ambient sound being heard from behind the seats while the eerie anthem fills the room.

The sound design of the piece cleverly plays on the relationship between private and public space. We as an audience are viewing something that is not meant to be seen. The idea of the hidden being made visible is incorporate through the sound design. By not incorporating the use of headphones and having the sound emanate from behind the seating bench, the distorted anthem becomes the first sound the audience is introduced to. The anthem is still clearly audible, as it fills the room, when viewing the footage of the captives. Poitras is able to evoke a sense of helplessness when seeing the aggressive treatment of the captives. This has to do with the information Poitras chooses not to give the audience. It is firstly not known that the captives are accused of being members of Al Qaeda initially, and so first impression suggests they are innocent civilians. Secondly, it is not known that the interrogators, who speak Arabic to the captives, are from the U.S. military. Over the distorted anthem, which fills moments of silence, Poitras is able to challenge actions taken towards supposedly preventing terrorism. What does it mean if the U.S. military is seen as terrorists themselves? The information Poitras chooses to leave out in the installations is included in the brochure of her show. The experience of walking through the installation can be different depending on whether one reads the informational pamphlet before or after.

Poitras creates distinct rooms, each offering different content and a different way to view it. Yet each room is informed by the previous one. The second, being that it involved lying down to look up at stars in the sky, is perhaps to continue the U.S. national anthem from the previous room whilst challenging notions of what it means to be an individual in a space. The last thing one would have seen before walking into this room, would have been the footage of an individual in captivity. What does it mean to you are grounded on a planet shared by others? What does it mean to be able to look at the stars and know that someone else is being tortured and imprisoned? What does it mean to know that there are many things that are not visible? The videos of the stars, and the edges of buildings, are shot in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and the U.S. Where does this place the viewer? Who does the viewer become? Interestingly, the sound design is of distorted sounds of drones flying, voices of drone pilots and radio noise.

To go from gazing at a timelapsed video of the night skies to having to look through slits on the wall in order to obtain information, juxtaposes the accessible to the confidential. It is certainly amusing to see, with the third room, each person standing at varying heights around the narrow space, looking in to see the confidential documents or footage. Poitras is able to not only curate content dedicated to surveillance, but structures an exhibit that critiques the right to information and the extent to which we want to be ‘in the know’.

As I stepped into the last room (though not the last installation), it did not occur to me initially that the television screen was showing a live feed. This was the only screen showing realtime content, which was an overhead camera fixed on the individuals lying down in the second installation  (in a highly saturated and colorful manner). As one journeys through the installation then, an audience member is unaware that they are actually being seen by other audience members.

Poitras’ installation, which is her first solo exhibition, is the most cleverly structured installation I have ever personally seen. She not only structures content, but plays with how each installation is seen and how one informs the another. Having been through the installation once, I certainly need to visit it again and see how my experience of it changes (the installation is on till 1st May 2016). As a photographer who would like to move into installation work that uses the tools of film and theatre, Poitras certainly gave me a lot to think about not only in term of the theme of surveillance, but her medium of choice to represent her experiences, research and documentation.

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